George Baldwin Selden was born September 14, 1846 in Clarkson, New York.
His father was an attorney and in 1859 moved his family to Rochester, New York.
George grew up and briefly attended the University of Rochester.
When the American Civil War broke out, George dropped out of college and enlisted in the 6th Cavalry Regiment of the Union Army.
His father was not happy with this decision, and after pulling some strings George was released from duty and enrolled at Yale.
George however, did not do well in his studies, preferring technical studies offered by the Sheffield Scientific School over Yale law school.
He did manage to finish his law degree and pass the New York bar exam in 1871.
George then joined his fathers law practice just around the time his father became a prominent Republican attorney defending Susan B. Anthony.
He then married Clara Drake Woodruff, and the couple went on to have 4 children together.
George continued his hobby of tinkering and inventing in a workshop in his father’s basement. He began by inventing a typewriter and then a hoop making machine.
During this time, George Selden represented photography pioneer George Eastman in patent matters.
The Selden patent
Inspired by the mammoth internal combustion engine invented by George Brayton displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, George began working on a smaller lighter version, succeeding in 1878, some eight years before the public introduction of the Benz Patent Motorwagen in Europe.
George produced a one-cylinder, 400-pound version which featured an enclosed crankshaft with the help of Rochester machinist Frank H. Clement and his assistant William Gomm.
George then filed for a patent on May 8, 1879.
His application included not only the one-cylinder engine but its use in a 4 wheeled car.
George then filed a series of amendments to his application which stretched out the legal process resulting in a delay of 16 years before the patent was granted on November 5, 1895.
Shortly thereafter, the fledgling American auto industry began its first efforts and George Selden, despite never having gone into production with a working model of an automobile, had a credible claim to have patented an automobile in 1895.
In 1899, George sold his patent rights to William C. Whitney, who proposed manufacturing electric-powered taxicabs as the Electric Vehicle Company, EVC, for a royalty of US$15 per car with a minimum annual payment of US$5,000.
Whitney and Selden then worked together to collect royalties from other budding automobile manufacturers.
George was initially successful, negotiating a 0.75% royalty on all cars sold by the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers.
George then opened his own car company in Rochester, New York under the name Selden Motor Vehicle Company.
However, Henry Ford, owner of the Ford Motor Company, founded in Detroit, Michigan in 1903, and four other car makers resolved to contest the patent infringement suit filed by Selden and EVC.
The legal fight lasted eight years, generating a case record of 14,000 pages.
Henry Ford’s testimony included the comment;
“It is perfectly safe to say that George Selden has never advanced the automobile industry in a single particular…and it would perhaps be further advanced than it is now if he had never been born.”
The case was heavily publicized in the newspapers of the day, and ended in a victory for George Selden.
In his court decision, the judge wrote that the patent covered any automobile propelled by an engine powered by gasoline vapor.
Posting a bond of US$350,000, Henry Ford appealed, and on January 10, 1911 won his case based on an argument that the engine used in automobiles was not based on George Brayton’s engine, the Brayton engine which George Selden had improved, but on the Otto engine.
This stunning defeat, with only one year left to run on the patent, destroyed George Selden’s income stream.
He focused production of his car company on trucks, renaming his company the Selden Truck Sales Corporation.
It survived in that form until 1930 when it was purchased by the Bethlehem Truck Company.
George Selden suffered a stroke in late 1921 and died at the age of 75 on January 17, 1922.
He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester.
It is estimated, however, that he received several hundred thousand dollars in royalties.
Now WE know em